Oxana Shevchenko — Private Piano Recital
Chopin, Ravel, Medtner, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky

Zurich Area, 2016-01-16

4-star rating

2016-01-24 — Original posting
2016-07-06 — Revised for better readability, 2 more pictures added


Oxana Shevchenko (source: www.oxanashevchenko.com; © Emil Matveev Studio 4'33)
Oxana Shevchenko (source: www.oxanashevchenko.com; © Emil Matveev Studio 4’33)

About the Artist

I have first encountered the Kazakh pianist Oxana Shevchenko through YouTube videos. Later, we connected through Facebook & Twitter, with occasional, casual interactions via these social media. I have written several reviews on concerts in which she played (see the addendum at the bottom of this post). There, I have also given more information about her career, etc.

Why This Concert?

Last November, totally out of the blue, I received an inquiry by Oxana Shevchenko. She asked whether I could help her finding a place for a private recital. The idea was, to help her getting some public exposure, as preparation for upcoming concerts in Panama (2016-01-30) and Columbia (2016-02-06). At first, I was clueless about what to suggest, but then I remembered the two private recitals that Yulianna Avdeeva had given 2008 and 2010 in the loft apartment of one of our friends (see my earlier blog post about these recitals). These friends had not organized any such recitals since. However, I thought it might be worth giving this a try. And indeed, just weeks ago, they had been pondering the idea of taking this up again! Though, they had no idea whom to invite as artist.

That alone was close to a miracle — on top of that, Oxana had given me two weekends as possible dates, the first of which fit into our friends’ calendar! So, unexpectedly, I found myself in the position to help organizing a private concert. We sent out invitations (sorry, in German only), and in no time, the available 60 seats were all taken (Yulianna Avdeeva’s recitals only had around 40 invited visitors each).

Getting the Piano Tuned

On top of all this, the host is a close friend with Urs Bachmann, who had been tuning the piano for Yulianna Avdeeva’s recitals. He also did the tuning for Stephen Kovacevich’s Recital in Baden. In fact, I consider Urs Bachmann the best piano tuner in Europe (if not more). He serves numerous festivals, such as Verbier, Ernen, Gstaad, and he is Stephen Kovacevich‘s and András Schiff‘s favorite tuner (and probably that of numerous other artists as well). Urs Bachmann offered to tune the piano again — and he had one open time slot in an extremely busy travel schedule (to places as far as Uruguay and to Carnegie Hall in New York) — January 16th!

The Recital Program

So, the recital was taking place near Zurich, on 2016-01-16 at 5:00 p.m., and it featured the following program:

I have split the report below by composer, and for reasons of efficiency, I have simply translated / adapted the descriptions of the above compositions from the Program notes (German).

General Remarks

The text below is to be read as “concert report” rather than a proper and “truly objective” critique, for various reasons, such as my personal involvement in the organization and the direct contacts & dealing with the artist. This felt like a combination of concert organizer and artist’s agent. As I was sitting in the first row, I couldn’t really follow the “critic’s duty” and frantically fill sheets of paper with notes. I rather seized the chance to take some pictures. Finally, I was sitting too close to the piano for getting a neutral, objective impression. But still, I wanted to inform my readers about all concert-like events that I’m attending & involved in — so, here we go:


The Concert Setup

As the two previous, private recitals that I attended so far, this recital took place in the basement of a loft apartment near Zurich. The piano (a Steinway B-211) stood halfway under the open staircase. 60 chairs were arranged in a half-circle around the instrument:

In the picture on the left, one can see the piano tuner, Urs Bachmann, at work (throughout the morning); people had been seated by the organizers, using name tags. There were close to 60 visitors attending (there was a list of people who had to be rejected; only during the setup, the hosts figured that they could even have placed 80 or 90 chairs). The artist had about an hour to play on the piano, before — around 4:30 p.m. — people started arriving.

The visitors convened in the floor above for some snacks, chatting, etc., then, on time, the audience filled up (no latecomers, luckily!). Some short introductions were given by the host, and by myself. I was not introducing the artist, as that information was found in the program notes. I merely told how we arrived at having Oxana here for a concert. Then, about 15 minutes late, Oxana started her recital:

Oxana Shevchenko, private concert, Zurich area, 2016-01-16
Oxana Shevchenko, private concert, Zurich area, 2016-01-16

Chopin: “Polonaise-fantaisie” in A♭ major, op.61

Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) published his “Polonaise-fantaisie” in A♭ major, op.61 in 1846. The annotation “Allegro maestoso” seems to indicate a continuation of the earlier Polonaises by the same composer, such as the “Polonaise héroïque” in A♭ major, op.53. However, already in its dimension, op.61 exceeds its predecessors. Also, the beginning of op.61 is unusually hesitant. It takes quite a while until we see a longer stretch of continuous musical flow. Even later sections of the piece appear to be dominated by the “Fantaisie” part of the title. To me, it’s only in the second half of the piece when I start getting a “Polonaise feeling” — this characteristic mix of heroism and melancholy.

Overall, the Polonaise-fantaisie may be seen as a somewhat strange hybrid. This may have contributed to the fact that it took a long time, until (around the mid-20th century) this composition became popular in concert life. By now, a Chopin repertoire without op.61 is hardly imaginable.

Placing the Polonaise-fantaisie in a Recital

Ever since I first heard this piece in a concert in Zurich with an old and frail Stefan Askenase, back in 1980, this to me has been a key piece in all of Chopin’s piano music. In the aftermath of Oxana’s recital, I asked myself whether it was the right decision to start a concert with this gem, also under the aspect that with all the other pieces in the program (especially the spectacular, virtuosic ones), the memory from the first one probably almost faded away. But this was of course entirely Oxana’s decision, based on how she wanted to “orchestrate” her recital, where to place the focus, what people should in the end remember most, etc. — and maybe also considering the position / importance of Chopin in her repertoire in general.

Oxana’s Interpretation

In the starting piece, the main thing for me — feeling like the organizer of the event, in parts — was, that Oxana felt at ease with the private recital situation. I was delighted to see that she was immediately immersed in the recital, totally devoted to and living in the music. One could also tell this from her facial expression and body language! Sure, and expectedly, the first piece was not a CD performance. In a recital, one should not look at the occasional (rare) lacking note or missed key (especially not in the opening piece!), but to me, the important point is the “spirit of the interpretation”.

It was definitely not a “08/15” Chopin interpretation, not one that merely follows current mainstream Chopin playing. Still, in my opinion it was a valid approach, especially in the second half: Oxana’s Chopin (at least in this piece) is not of the delicate, subtle kind, but very expressive, with powerful, dynamic build-ups, harmonic in the phrasing.

The only critical remarks that I heard about her entire recital (and only from one specific listener) were about this piece, claiming that some of the tension arches weren’t long enough, etc. — I could agree that maybe in the first part, there may occasionally have been a lack of tension; but then, Oxana did not necessarily place the arches where everybody else would. I tend to allow for non-standard solutions, and I definitely did not have the feeling that Oxana was lacking a concept for this music. Note that the piece comes with its own set of structural challenges, see above. In any case, by the end of the Chopin Polonaise-fantaisie, both the artist and the audience were captured by the music, and the listeners were eager to hear the challenging pieces to follow!

A Note on the Tuning

The other point that I found stunning is not among Oxana’s merits, but that goes to the piano tuner, Urs Bachmann. Particularly here, as well as in other lyrical parts of the recital, such as the Medtner sonata, Urs Bachmann’s qualities as tuner to me were once more confirmed (not that I needed a confirmation, though!). The purity, the beauty of the sound of resting chords (especially major chords, of course / naturally) was absolutely mind-boggling and unparalleled. Actually, it is amazing how much bad or marginal tuning one can hear in concert halls these days — it was an absolute (world-class, no doubt) privilege that we were able to enjoy such tuning in this private recital!


Ravel: “La Valse”, Poème choréographique

1919, the famous ballet impresario and founder of the Ballets RussesSergei Diaghilew (1872 – 1929) asked Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) for a ballet music on the theme “Vienna and its Waltzes”. Ravel finished the composition under the title “Vienna” in 1920 — however, Diaghilev rejected, claiming it is not a ballet, but rather the “portrait of a ballet”. So, 1920, the composition premiered as orchestral composition. Because after the war, the title “Vienna” seemed inappropriate / unacceptable in France, Ravel changed its name to La Valse, Poème choréographique. 1921, Ravel arranged the composition for two pianos, later also for a single piano. This latter version — featured in this recital — is not played very often, due to its high technical demands.

According to Wikipedia, Ravel added the following text to the preface: “Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees at letter A an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo letter B. Set in an imperial court, about 1855″.  It looks like Ravel intended to write some sort of apotheosis of the Waltz.

The composer George Benjamin described this as follows: “Whether or not it was intended as a metaphor for the predicament of European civilization in the aftermath of the Great War, its one-movement design plots the birth, decay and destruction of a musical genre: the waltz” [Benjamin, George (July 1994), “Last Dance”. The Musical Times, 135 (1817): 432–435]. The piece starts with harmless waltz rhythms / themes, but gradually, distorted rhythms and dissonant harmonies are setting in, and the piece ends with an eruption of violence and chaos.

Oxana’s Interpretation

A friend of mine stated she has never heard a convincing interpretation of version of “La valse” for two hands. She claims that none of the performances she heard really mirrored the grotesqueness and chaos of the orchestral original. I don’t know whether she ever listened to Oxana’s interpretation, but I’d like to challenge that statement

Oxana has played this in the 2010 Scottish International Piano Competition. It is included with the CD that was recorded on the occasion of that competition (see below). There is also a moderate quality YouTube video, recorded on the same occasion (possibly her competition performance even, see the bottom of this post). I find her performance of this piece stunning, enthralling, and even just the physical forces that Oxana can deploy in this piece are amazing! Compared with the 2010 performances, I found her recital performance more harmonic (if that’s possible in this piece at all!), more organic, certainly at least at the level of her CD and competition performances. It was the first real highlight in this recital — the audience was enthused!


Medtner: “Sonata-Idyl” in G major, op.56

Nikolai Karlovich Medtner (Никола́й Ка́рлович Ме́тнер, 1880 – 1951), was a Russian composer with German roots. He did his studies as pianist 1892 – 1900 at the Moscow Conservatory. Thereafter, he took private lessons on composing with Sergei Tanejew. 1921 he emigrated to Germany, 1924 to the surroundings of Paris. Later, 1935, he moved to London, having his biggest audience in the United Kingdom. As a pianist, he was performing mostly his own works. Medtner developed his very personal musical style — romantic, with some similarity to Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s musical language. Also in terms of the (very high) technical challenges, Medtner’s music is close to Rachmaninoff’s. The “Sonata-Idyl” in G major, op.56 is Medtner’s last piano sonata, composed 1937; it features two movements:

  1. Pastorale: Allegretto cantabile
  2. Allegro moderato e cantabile (sempre al rigore di tempo)

The Pastorale is an atmospheric piece with simple, catchy melodies and polyphony in imitative style. Formally, the longer second movement is a Rondo — with a similar atmosphere, but clearly more complex in its polyphonic texture, and technically much more demanding.

Oxana’s Interpretation

The two movements of this sonata may require far less physical power. Oxana delivered a very atmospheric, harmonic interpretation (showing Medtner’s typical, personal idiom), with an impressive, polyphonic build-up in the second movement. She made the audience ignore the technical complexity in that movement, made it sound serene, peaceful, almost playful — heavenly music, for sure!


Rachmaninoff: Concert Paraphrase on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Already his first composition for orchestra, written at the age of 14, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) wrote music that was based on / inspired by the Scherzo from Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy‘s (1809 – 1847) incidental music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. That early composition from 1887 premiered only 1945 and was published 1947. 1933 he returned to the same source in a composition for piano: he wrote the Paraphrase after the Scherzo from the incidental music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Mendelssohn.

Rachmaninoff’s paraphrases are technically really challenging pieces, in particular this one, requiring agility and lightness in intricate, polyphonic passagework. Unlike Liszt’s transcriptions, this isn’t really trying to reproduce the orchestral experience. It rather sounds like a demonstration of the artist’s (Rachmaninoff’s own) virtuosic abilities: lightness in complexity! It is probably near-impossible to hit all keys in all these rapid notes / repeated figures (typical for Mendelssohn!). However, Oxana mastered this very well, with amazing agility. I like the lightness of her staccato! The pianist made the music flash by like a swarm of birds or butterflies.


Rachmaninoff: Concert Paraphrase after Tchaikovsky’s “Lullaby”

1941, two years before his death, Rachmaninoff wrote his (supposedly) last composition for piano solo, the Paraphrase after Tchaikovsky’s “Lullaby”, after the “Lullaby”, op.16 No.1, by Pjotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893).

The challenge here is not in the agility of fast motifs, but in making the melody voices stand out (and sing!) within complex, far-spanning polyphony — while maintaining a calm flow in a melancholic (sometimes almost depressive) atmosphere. It’s a composer’s and pianist’s sad farewell to his audiences. This was an excellent choice as transition between the Scherzo paraphrase and the Stravinsky that followed — and very well-played!


Stravinsky: Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka

Oxana Shevchenko, private concert, Zurich area, 2016-01-16
Oxana Shevchenko, private concert, Zurich area, 2016-01-16

In his memoirs about his work on the ballet “Pétrouchka” (Petrushka), Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) wrote “In composing the music, I had in my mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts.” [Stravinsky, Igor. 1936. Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, p. 48]. Originally, Pétrouchka was a concert piece for piano and orchestra. Upon Sergei Diaghilew‘s suggestion, Stravinsky reworked it into a ballet for the Ballets Russes.

In that composition, the piano is essentially just a percussion instrument. Arthur Rubinstein (1887 – 1982) gave Stravinsky some essential ideas about what else the piano can do. In 1921, this motivated the composer to write a “piano sonata”, based on motifs from the ballet: the Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka. It’s one of the most challenging and most virtuosic pieces in the entire piano literature, featuring three movements:

  • Danse Russe
  • Chez Pétrouchka
  • La semaine grasse

In the last movement, the composer almost always used three, sometimes even four staves.

Oxana’s Interpretation

I think the above description says all there is to say about the extreme technical challenges in these three movements. Oxana has these well under control! Already the first movement is a technical monster, requiring power, rapid jumps, dynamic, ultra-fast agility, fast repetitions with “about 20 fingers”. The second movement has segments that sound like a swarm of dwarfs, grotesquely jumping around; there are a few calm intermissions, but also eruptions of wild percussive virtuosity.

But that all is merely a prelude to the challenges of the last movement: percussive, polyrhythmic. Like in the first movement, it seemed impossible that a mere two hands were playing this. the piece requires constant, vast jumps with both hands — and a huge amount of physical power. It was jaw-dropping to see how well and with how much strength and agility Oxana mastered this technical benchmark! And it is beautiful, enthralling music, after all — to me, one of the true masterpieces of 20th century music! Oxana clearly plays this with her heart, rather than as a demonstration of cold virtuosity and perfection. I was completely taken and captured by this performance. I really hope to witness this again in the future!


Conclusion

Oxana did not take a real break during the entire performance, which lasted around 65 minutes. The applause clearly showed that all of the audience liked the recital. The artist gave No.2, “Oiseaux tristes”, from “Miroirs” by Maurice Ravel as an encore. That piece is also present on her 2010 CD (see below). This was played very atmospherically, demonstrating Oxana’s excellent keyboard touch and dynamic control: I really like her Ravel!

The people in the audience, the host and myself included, thought that the recital has been a full success. But it was obvious to me that also Oxana felt really well during the performance. One could tell that even just from her facial expressions, how she lived “in” the pieces, particularly during the “La valse” by Ravel, or while she played the Stravinsky (very similar to the way how she lived with and in the music in the concert in Lucerne in August). After the recital she confirmed to me that she felt at ease while performing. For sure, this contributed to the overall result: the pleasure Oxana felt and lived in the recital must have transmitted into the audience!

After the Recital

After the concert, we were fortunate and really happy to have Oxana around for another couple of hours, while an excellent Apéro riche was available on the floor above. As stated, everybody agreed that the event was a full success — even though it all was arranged rather short-term. The invitations went out a little over a month prior to the concert, but the holiday season shortened the effective preparation time to some 3 weeks. I’m in discussions with the hosts about possible future instances of such private concerts. We may even add a couple of enhancements, e.g.: we hope to arrange for audio and video recordings. So: I’m looking forward to upcoming private concerts!


Oxana Shevchenko’s Debut CD:

Oxana Shevchenko — Debut CD 2010; CD cover

Piano Works by Ravel, Shostakovich, Liszt, Mozart, and Thea Musgrave

Oxana Shevchenko, piano

Delphian DCD34061 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2010
Booklet: 8 pp. English

Oxana Shevchenko — Debut CD; UPC-A barcode
amazon media link
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Featured Compositions:

  • Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937):
    • From “Miroirs”:
      • No.2, “Oiseaux tristes” (4’03”)
      • No.4, “Alborada del gracioso” (6’47”)
      • No.5, “La vallée des cloches” (6’11”)
    • La valse, Poème choréographique (11’05”)
  • Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975):
    • From 24 Preludes, op.34:
      • No.1 in C major (1’26”)
      • No.2 a minor (0’49”)
      • No.5 in D major (0’33”)
      • No.7 in A major (1’20”)
      • No.20 C minor (0’38”)
      • No.24 in D minor (1’22”)
    • From 24 Preludes & Fugues, op.87:
      • Prelude No.12 in G♯ minor, Andante (4’01”)
      • Fugue No.12 in G♯ minor, Allegro (3’36”)
  • Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886):
    • Fantasy on 2 Themes from Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” (14’08”)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791):
    • Allegro in B♭ major “Sophie and Constanze”, K.400 (4’26”)
  • Thea Musgrave (*1928):
    • Snapshots (5’10”)

(Total duration: 65’29”)


Addendum 1:

I have written reviews on several of Oxana Shevchenko’s regular (public) concerts:


Addendum 2:

Oxana’s performance of Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse”, on the occasion of her participation in the 2010 Scottish International Piano Competition. This is also available on YouTube (the video is of modest quality, unfortunately, and there are also a couple hiccups in the audio track):



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